The First Cold War: Anglo-Russian Relations in the 19th Century by Barbara Emerson - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Less Vodka, More Cricket

The First Cold War: Anglo-Russian Relations in the 19th Century


Hurst 560pp £35

This scholarly, often original and always readable study of British and Russian relations in the 19th century is based primarily on diplomatic correspondence and records of ministries of foreign affairs, and secondarily on press sources and private archives. The book begins with chapters tracing the first encounters between Russia and England in the 16th century. In the 1550s, English adventurers trying to reach China via the Arctic Ocean got no further than Archangel, and merchants of both countries denounced each other’s drunken loutishness. Two decades later, Ivan the Terrible sounded out Elizabeth I about the availability of an eighth wife and the possibility of obtaining asylum in England should he be overthrown in a revolt. A steady trade evolved, with English manufactured goods going one way and Russian raw materials the other. A few Russians came to study in England (even fewer returned home). There was a lack of mutual understanding, but even in the 18th century, as Russia became a major military and naval power, there was little conflict. When Peter the Great on a visit to England roasted an ox in a palace drawing room and Russia employed Jacobite generals, protests were muted.

The body of Barbara Emerson’s study consists of a dozen chapters exploring Russian imperial expansion in the Balkans, Persia, Central Asia and China and the alarm it aroused in Britain. Only once, in the Crimean War of the mid-1850s, did hostilities break out between the two countries (it was a desultory conflict). Action outside the Crimea – in the Baltic and the Pacific – was half-hearted. In 1878, after Russia defeated Turkey and seemed likely to annex Constantinople, Disraeli and Bismarck became bellicose in their efforts to save the Ottoman Empire from dismemberment. The Russian advance on Merv in Transcaspia gave rise to music hall threats: ‘We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do/We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.’

The battle for Merv proved, like most imperial squabbles, to be a small bone of contention. If Emerson’s book has a weakness, it is its title: there was no ‘First Cold War’. In the 19th century, British antagonism towards first France, then Germany was far stronger than towards Russia. Russia

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